A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge ruled Monday that county hot-work permit statutes don’t apply in the case against two men accused of using power tools to clear trails near the origin of the May 2009 Jesusita Fire.
Judge Jean Dandona said there’s no suggestion in county code that an operational permit is required for work similar to the stipulated activity of the defendants.
Craig Ilenstine and Dana Larsen still face the charge of not having proper firefighting equipment on hand, and could be sentenced to jail time and fines of up to $25,000. The men, who are being tried together, have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Without the permit-related charge, however, restitution is ruled out as far as the District Attorney’s Office is concerned.
“There’s no cause or connection between not having equipment and the fire starting,” Senior Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian said.
At Monday’s preliminary hearing, defense attorneys Sam Eaton and Larry Powell reiterated that applying a hot-work building standards code — which uses terms such as welding and grinding — to using what is essentially a weed wacker is irrational.
“It’s terrible that (the defendants) spent all this time and money on something that is so obvious,” Eaton said.
Lulejian’s witness at the hearing, Capt. Darrell Delgado of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, said permits are needed for any work that produces sparks, but he wasn’t aware of any permits issued for brush-clearing or gardening-related activities.
Eaton and Powell, attorneys for Ilenstine and Larsen, respectively, asked Delgado if permits would be necessary for mowing a rocky lawn, using a barbecue with an open flame or for other activities that had a possibility of causing sparks or fire, and the witness answered that it all depended on the fire hazard.
Through questioning, Powell said it was difficult to know who to contact to even get a hot-work permit, and county fire’s information relating to wildfire preparedness, as well as requirements for weed abatement and defensible space, make no mention of needing a permit.
Lulejian played a video of an experiment done by the county fire department, and a shaky, handheld feed showed a man using a metal-bladed, gas-powered weed wacker near Lake Cachuma in August. The blade caused some sparks when the operator held it near a rock, and several zoom shots showed what appeared to be wisps of smoke coming up from areas that had been cleared. Delgado said the exercise caused two small fires, which personnel then extinguished.
The judge called it “marginally relevant,” and Eaton argued that the defendants are not being tried for starting a fire.
The defense drove home their point of confusion and improper notice with the testimony of George Davidson, a Montecito resident and former Carpinteria/Summerland fire captain. He said he has used chain saws, weed wackers and other tools to clear brush on his land near Westmont College, and that he was never aware a permit was needed.
After the media attention given to this case, Davidson said he tried in vain to get a permit, when his local fire protection district couldn’t direct him to anyone with the information, though he didn’t contact the county fire department directly, he said in his testimony.
When asked about Lulejian’s “phenomenon” of sparks smoldering in brush for 30 minutes then catching flame, he said it was possible but had never seen it.
The defense argued that the prosecution was going after the result instead of the activity, and that the rank-and-file citizen wouldn’t know such permits are necessary.
“Frankly, your honor, the fire departments don’t know what to tell you,” Powell said.
A readiness and settlement conference in the case has been scheduled for early June.
— Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com.